Are Googlers Really That Different From the Rest of Us?

This is not the first blog I have written about mistakes I think Google is making in how they are managing the company.  It will probably not be the last.  This blog was prompted by an article a friend sent me from the New York Times by Adam Bryant, Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. It appears that Google has invested quite a sum to determine what kind of boss they need to manage their company in the future.  As Bryant says, “So as only a data-mining giant like Google can do, it began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards,  they correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints.”  He also reported, “Once they had some working theories, they figured out a system for interviewing managers to gather more data, and to look for evidence that supported their notions (bold italics are mine). 

This activity involved more than 10,000 interviews and over 100 variables. With this kind of “research” it is no wonder that the results were “so forehead-slappingly obvious.”  They found—get this—that managers had a greater impact on employees’ performance and how they felt about their job than any other factor.  How many thousands of employee hours and company resources did it consume to come to this conclusion? Google now trains managers based on the results of this study. 

Quotes from a couple of managers who had been through the training speak to what they learned.  One said, “…two of the most important things I can do is just make sure I have some time for them and to be consistent.  And that’s more important than doing the rest of the stuff.”  Another said the training helped him understand the importance of giving clear and direct feedback. While I understand that someone who is inconsistent and does not give clear and direct feedback will be less effective than those who do, those things will not create a company that brings out the best in its employees.  

Even spending time with employees does not guarantee an improvement in morale or performance.  It is possible that spending time with the boss can be a punishing experience.  Many managers who give clear and consistent feedback are also very punishing, and can therefore create employees who are only willing to give just enough do get by. The most important thing Google can teach its managers is how to deliver contingent positive reinforcement.  They are not likely to do that since their culture is built on non-contingent reinforcement.  Indeed one of their 10 Golden Rules for managing knowledge workers is to cater to their every need. 

I think they have misinterpreted Peter Drucker who said to strip away everything that gets in their way.  I think Drucker meant that a company should eliminate all the unnecessary administrative goobledegoop.  What Google has interpreted it to mean is to provide things like first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, carwashes, dry cleaning, commuting buses—just about anything a hardworking engineer might want.

 The problem is that they are also all the things a non-hardworking engineer might want.  The assumption is that having these things available for employees will cause them to spend more time in productive work.  I know of no research to support this notion. It seems to me that Google has spent a lot of time and money to learn that employees at Google are just like employees everywhere else.  They all respond to the laws of human behavior.  Googlers are not so special that they follow their own set of behavioral laws.  By learning those laws, executives and other managers at Google can save a lot of time and money and develop truly effective managers who bring out the best in all employees.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.